"A Spool of Blue Thread" (Alfred A. Knopf), by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler published her first novel in 1964, and some 50 years later she is still going strong. "A Spool of Blue Thread," her 20th novel, is a miracle of sorts, a tender, touching and funny story about three generations of an ordinary American family who are, of course, anything but.
At the center of the novel are Abby and Red Whitshank and their four adult children. Abby was a stay-at-home-mom turned social worker, Red a building contractor. They still live in the spacious, old-fashioned house with tall sash windows, a full-length porch and flagstone walk that Red's father painstakingly built by himself in a shady neighborhood of Baltimore.
The story takes place in the recent past: Abby and Red are in their 70s, and Abby has begun "disappearing," both physically and mentally, while Red, who is hard of hearing, struggles to recover from a heart attack. For the first time their beloved house is starting to show signs of neglect, and Denny, the third-born and now in his late 30s, is still frustratingly adrift.
Denny's estrangement from his family is one of the domestic mysteries that animates the novel. A problem child who grew into a troubled adult, he picks up and discards identities like a restless kid in a Halloween shop. Even he is at a loss to understand the source of his misery.
Might it have been the arrival of the Whitshanks' last child, nicknamed Stem, when Denny was just 4, which triggered feelings of hostility that grew only larger when Stem ended up taking over their dad's business? Then again, sometimes the Whitshanks' clannish ways just drive Denny nuts.
Abby, a 1960s-style earth mother who feels compelled to look after society's misfits and orphans, is the novel's most commanding presence, even with her cognitive impairment. Tyler's depiction of the thought processes of an elderly demented person — "a gear sort of slips in your head," Abby thinks — is poetic and deeply moving.
Early on in this novel, the affable, folksy narrator informs us that "there was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks" — none was famous or exceptionally beautiful or intelligent — but "like most families, they imagined they were special."
Tyler's accomplishment in this understated masterpiece is to convince us not only that the Whitshanks are remarkable but also that every family — no matter how seemingly ordinary — is in its own way special.